Nonetheless, the position comes with the full powers and responsibilities of elected office and, as a sworn member of the City Council, the appointee has free rein to pursue legislation, make or block departmental nominations and otherwise engage in city business as they see fit. And running to stay in office is not always off the table.
The Council is just a few days away from a new appointment to fill the citywide District 8 seat left vacant by Teresa Mosqueda’s election to the King County Council. That appointee will serve on the Council until the results from this November’s special election are certified and an elected representative finishes Mosqueda’s term through the end of 2025.
This is far from the first time Seattle has faced a vacancy on its City Council. According to the city archivist, there have been 52 Council vacancies since 1869 and the Council has only once, in 1941, left a seat unfilled by an appointee.
The current vacancy is the fourth on the Council since 2015. Crosscut spoke with John Okamoto, Kirsten Harris-Talley and Abel Pacheco, who were appointed in 2015, 2017 and 2019 respectively, to learn what it’s like to take on that slightly odd role of City Council appointee, what work they were able to get done and what advice they have for the incoming appointee.
Okamoto was appointed to the Council in April 2015 to replace Councilmember Sally Clark, who left eight months early for a job at the University of Washington. Prior to his appointment Okamoto had been an interim director at Seattle’s Human Services Department, director of the Washington Education Association and a Port of Seattle executive.
In October 2017, Harris-Talley was appointed for a brief 51-day appointment to Councilmember Tim Burgess’s seat after Mayor Ed Murray resigned amid scandal and Burgess became interim mayor. At the time, Harris-Talley was heavily involved in the “Block the Bunker” movement opposing construction of a new North Precinct police station and the No New Youth Jail movement. Harris-Talley was later elected to represent Washington’s 37th legislative district.
In April 2019, Pacheco was appointed to replace Councilmember Rob Johnson, who left before the end of his last year in office for a job with the NHL. Pacheco, now a Sound Transit government relations director, ran against Johnson in the 2015 primary for the District 4 seat. Pacheco had also sought appointment in 2017.
Each of them described the appointment process as intense. For one, you are cast into new levels of public scrutiny. Okamoto, for example, was vociferously criticized by Councilmember Kshama Sawant and other leftists about controversies at the Port that happened while he was an executive, but in which he was not directly implicated.
On top of that, the process is extremely compressed. When Harris-Talley applied, she submitted her application on a Sunday, the city posted the list of candidates on Monday and the Council took their final vote on Friday. Midway through that week, Harris-Talley said she felt a sense of panic as the possibility of an appointment set in and she thought about needing to find people to staff her office on such short notice.
The intensity carries into an appointee’s time in office.
“City Hall was the first place I ever cried at work,” Pacheco said. “The stress, the weight of the decisions. You know they can meaningfully impact people.”
One of the first challenges a Council appointee faces is staffing their office with the legislative aides and policy advisers who make City Hall run. Councilmembers can ask for staff members from city departments on temporary “loan” and sometimes, such as in Okamoto’s case, a staffer for the exiting councilmember might stick around to help. But staffing is ultimately the responsibility of the appointed councilmember and essential for success.
“It’s a very short period of time and you’ve got to get going quickly,” said Okamoto. “If the candidates don’t have staff in mind who have experience and knowledge, they’re going to take weeks or months to get up to speed.”
Harris-Talley said having a good, representative staff was critically important to her. She staffed her office with BIPOC, queer and trans women. “All of us really worked collectively. To build a team that’s really responsive to neighbors is hands down the best career experience I’ve had.”
From the outside, it can be hazy what councilmembers mean when they describe the appointment as a “caretaker” or “seat warmer” position. Asked if there were any explicit or implied directives from their Council colleagues, the three appointees said that while there may have been some unspoken expectations about what a temporary legislator might do, they were free to do their work and got to work on issues they’re proud of.
Pacheco chaired the land use and transportation committee and focused on urbanist issues he cares about. For example, he said the Council began working to change single-family zoning to neighborhood residential zoning, an attempt to rethink land use and density.
Okamoto sponsored a successful resolution to “disaggregate” U.S. Census data to help improve the ways Seattle provides aid to communities. Okamoto explained that if you look at the Asian-Pacific Islander Census category as a whole, it hides the higher rates of poverty among Pacific Islanders. Seattle was the first city in the U.S. to adopt a data-disaggregation policy.
All but a handful of Harris-Talley’s 51 days in office were spent on the city budget process. But she still had time to author a successful bill that’s having a lasting impact on the current and future appointment process.
While the City Charter lays out basic requirements for filling a vacancy, there was no obligation that the appointment process be done publicly. Harris-Talley’s bill established the public requirements used today for posting a job opening, hosting public forums in partnership with community organizations and holding a certain number of Council meetings to discuss the candidates.
As part of the budget process, Harris-Talley also co-sponsored legislation with Councilmember Mike O’Brien to enact a “head tax” on big businesses to help pay for affordable housing and homelessness services. While their 2017 version failed, it laid the groundwork for a 2018 version of the tax that passed, and which in turn helped clear a path for the current Jumpstart payroll tax on big businesses that passed in 2020.
With a new appointee starting imminently, Crosscut asked past appointees for their best advice about the job.
“Treat the position as if you’ll never have the opportunity again,” Pacheco said. “You have the ability to build a bridge in some of the most divisive issues around the city.”
In addition to advising the new appointee to choose their staff wisely and do so quickly, Okamoto said the appointee must “Remember that this is an at-large position that represents the entire city. It’s broader than any kind of individual district focus or issue focus. To really represent the people at-large, they have to think about what the big citywide issues are to carry.”
Harris-Talley, in a similar vein, said the appointee must not forget whom they work for.
“Because the Council has voted you in, people [might] feel in deference to those colleagues,” Harris-Talley said. “No. Even though those colleagues voted you in, your job is to serve the people of the City of Seattle. And District 8 is a seat that serves the entire city.”